Days turned into weeks. Every night after work I’d sneak down to visit 42, and every night, he’d throw me against the wall and I’d cowardly leave the room. It almost felt like he was making a game out of it–the object being, how quickly he could get me to leave. So far his record was about 3 seconds.

Fortunately for me, all the bumps and bruises were easily hidden under my work clothes, although I was certainly moving more slowly as time went on. Dieter was none the wiser, as far as I could tell. All he’d have to do to catch me in what I was doing is view the night footage, which apparently he never did.

Speaking of footage, I’d noticed a discrepancy.

There were dark patches here and there in the experiment footage, which I assumed were caused by either glitches or negligence, but the footage of 47’s death was flat out missing. It jumped straight from the two of them doing a puzzle, to 42 sitting in his corner, alone.

It was strange enough that I thought I’d ask Dieter about it during lunch.

“There was a big investigation,” he said between bites of his salad. “It turned out an IT guy who had access to both the main servers and the backup servers had gone rogue and deleted all the footage from all experiments taking place that day.”

“Why?”

“Who could say why people do the things they do?” he shrugged. “He was promptly let go. Perhaps he was upset with his working conditions.”

Dieter pointed to what I was eating, changing the subject. “I thought you gave up that ramen crap?”

Tonight, I hoped things would go differently with 42. During my digitizing, I’d discovered a set of documents that stated 42’s powers could be neutralized temporarily with water.

Why the hell weren’t we just doing that?

It was something else I could ask about later.

For now, I have my cup of water. I look out the window and down into the enclosure. I can see 42 waiting near the door for me. Clearly this has become a routine for him now.

I head down, and open the door. He lights up, but before he has a chance to grab me, I splash.

Dripping wet, he gave me the most offended look I think I’d ever seen. He tries twice to light up, before realizing he can’t.

It worked.

Unless he was planning on biting me, we had to spend time together now.

“That’s right,” I said. “I figured out how to shut you down.” I point to his corner. “Go sit over there.”

He looks over to his corner, and then he glares at me.

“No.”

“Tough,” I say. “Go.”

He clenches his little fists, and then stomps over and sits down in his corner. He crosses his arms, still glaring. Eerily, like a child.

“Thank you.”

I reach into my bag, and pull out a stack of flash cards I’d put together, printed, and cut out myself. It was much faster than ordering them.

“So since you can talk,” I said, “I thought it’d be fun to teach you some new words. Maybe get you to say a sentence or two.”

42 flicks his ears, irate. I wasn’t sure if he understood me or not.

“Cold,” he said.

“Well, that’s your own fault.”

I sit down in front of him, and point at the picture on the front of the card. It’s of a flower.

“What is this?”

He squints his eyes. He looks confused.

I guess he’d never seen one before.

“It’s a flower. Can you say ‘flower’?”

“No.”

Alright.

I flip to a new card.

“Can you say ‘bird’?”

Quickly, he snatches the card from my hand, and stuffs it in his mouth. He has a smug look on his face as he chews, as if he thinks he’s teaching me a lesson.

I slouch back and glance away from him, annoyed.

“They’re not food, you brat.”

He spits the mangled, soggy card back out. “47.”

I go quiet.

“47,” he repeats, slower this time.

“Do you want to talk about 47?” I ask him gently.

“Dieter.” He starts gesturing. I have no idea what he’s trying to tell me.

“… 47 is gone,” I say gently. “He’s not coming back.”

42 sighs, frustrated, and begins pulling at his hair.

“H-hey, don’t–”

He smacks my hand away as I try to stop him. “No.”

I stare at him, and he sits there quietly. He then says, very slowly, “47. Dieter,” pokes me hard in the chest with his finger while making a buzzing noise, falls over, and then stops moving.

For a moment, I’m worried, and then he looks up at me from his slumped position.

Slowly, the gears in my head begin turning.

There’s no way.

I get up and go into the room with lab coats. I come out with a cattle prod. At first, 42 looks terrified, until I sit down in front of him, and point to it.

“Dieter?” I ask.

He hesitates before nodding. “47.” And then falls over again.

I sit there for a moment, then pick up the chewed card, get up, and leave the enclosure.

I pace in circles around my apartment.

He knew his friend wasn’t coming back. He was trying to tell me that Dieter killed him, with a cattle prod. Before, when he was pinning me to the wall, he was trying to ask me why. Maybe he thought I already knew what happened? I’m glad he figured out that I didn’t.

I stop what I’m doing, and sit down on the floor with my back against my bed.

I’m the only person who cared enough about that–let’s face it, he’s a child–to try and sit down and talk with him. Everyone before me discounted his simple word use as nothing more than mimicry.

This kid needs me to stay in this department, doesn’t he.

After everything he’s been through, he needs at least one person who understands that there’s a person behind those bright orange eyes of his.

Should I tell Dieter that I know what happened? Should I tell him that 42 is much, much smarter than either of us thought? That there’s something human in there? That there was likely something human inside of 47 as well?

Slowly, I stand up.

I hadn’t eaten anything aside from that ramen at lunch today.

If 42 needs me, then… I should probably take better care of myself, shouldn’t I?

I grab my keys and a backpack, and head out to go grocery shopping. There’s nothing but more ramen here.

… I wonder if Eckert knew.

The next morning, I made my way to work. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. I’d actually bothered to eat breakfast, and made myself a lunch. Tonight, after my time with 42, I also planned to go to the gym for the first time in over a month.

I wanted to help him. I wanted him to trust me. Having someone who needed me made me feel like I meant something. It made me feel there was a reason to care for myself.

Sometime today, during my digitizing, I would call Eckert. I got the feeling he had no idea about the cattle prod detail. I felt that if he knew, and if it were common knowledge in the department, Dieter would’ve told me about it instead of leaving it simply at a “heart defect”.

I enter the observation deck, and am met with Dieter, who’s clearly been waiting for me.

“Good morning, Ejay,” he said, as he placed the same cup I’d used to splash 42 with last night on our lunch table. “Anything you’d like to tell me?”

I swallow hard. I thought I picked that up. I guess I didn’t.

“Um.” I’m doing my best not to panic. “D-d’you have anything you’d like to tell me?

“Tell you what?” he said, his tone harsh.

“Wh… Why didn’t you tell me that w-water disables his powers?” I asked. “Why are we using cattle prods?”

“Cattle prods force him to keep his distance. He can’t bite or use his powers on you if he can’t get close enough.” He shook his head. “That’s not what’s important right now.” He stood up and crossed the room, staring me down as he did. “Are you some sort of masochist?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve been going down there nearly every night.”

“I h-have just as much right to be down there as you do.”

“He throws you against the wall. You’re lucky you’ve not cracked your skull open.”

I clench my fists.

“Don’t pretend you care about me,” I say, angry now. “I heard you talking to Eckert. You’re trying to get rid of me–”

“Because you don’t belong here.”

It stung to hear it come directly from him. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

“I noticed that you quit taking care of yourself. I know you heard me talking to Eckert,” he said, his voice just barely hiding his anger. “You are not strong enough to be here. You never should’ve been hired for this position in the first place.”

“… You knew I heard you?”

“I had my suspicions. Your sudden need to cut me out of your life certainly wasn’t subtle.” He glared at me. “But that’s not the point.”

“What is the point then?”

“You think I haven’t figured out why you insist on sleeves? That I haven’t caught glimpses of your wrists? Your scars?”

I didn’t how to respond to him bringing up something so personal, so I stare at him, my stomach immediately twisting into knots.

“You told me your father has schizoaffective disorder. Do you actually know what that is, or do you just know that he has it?”

“… What are you trying to say to me?”

“I think you’re a ticking time bomb. That not only are you physically unfit, but mentally as well. Tell me, how many friends have you made since you came here? How much time do you spend alone?”

My face feels numb. I’m angry, but I don’t know how to express it. So I say something stupid.

“I… I know you killed 47 with a cattle prod.”

His expression changes subtly.

“What are you talking about?”

“42. He… He’s not just a parrot. He can’t talk well, but he does talk. He communicates.”

He stares at me for a moment, before saying, “That’s called a delusion, Ejay.”

“What?”

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and you are the right age.” His lips curl into a partial smile. “Animals don’t talk. You’re seeing meaning where there is none.”

I’m quiet. I don’t know how to respond to that.

“I think it would be best,” Dieter began, “if you went to the storeroom and continued digitizing those tapes now.”

I stood there, wanting to say more, to defend myself.

But I couldn’t get myself to speak.

I turned, went back downstairs, and returned to the storeroom to do my job, and cry.